We have no accounts describing reactions to the first news of Magellan’s crew’s return, the signing of the Magna Carta, or the publication of the first book printed on movable type. More than likely, it was a day much like any other for nearly everyone. When humans first landed on the Moon, though, nearly all the people of the world were aware of the event and experienced it the moment it happened.
Today we forget that during the 1960s most Americans didn’t want their tax dollars spent on going to the Moon.
Some of the reactions were unexpected. W.H. Auden, who might have seen the poetry in the moment, dismissed the entire spectacle as “phallic triumph” for whooping boys — and thought no women could consider it worthwhile.
Yet Ayn Rand, an outspoken opponent of big government programs, was an unlikely Apollo fan. She grudgingly conceded that Kennedy’s moon program was carried out by a large federal agency, which she excused by rationalizing that NASA did not exercise its power in the manner government usually does.
When Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder, the debate over Apollo came to an end. The world came together in awe.
Life came to a complete standstill in communist Yugoslavia, where its citizens had access to a live television feed for the first time. In Warsaw, Americans visiting the city that summer were toasted at secret parties in defiance of Poland’s Soviet masters.
Of course, it wasn’t long before nearly everyone went back living as they had before. The astronauts were exceptions; most found their lives transformed after having been able to casually obscure the sight of the Earth by raising a thumb.
The moon landing was accomplished by a young post-war generation, inspired to answer the call of service asked of them by a visionary president in his inaugural address. President Kennedy’s lunar mandate arose out of serendipitous circumstances and fortuitously coincided with his first 100 days. The result was a rare moment of optimism demonstrating that the United States could set ambitious goals and meet them — even when the manner to accomplish them was not entirely understood — provided there was the will to do so.
Kennedy’s moon program should remind us that it is possible for government to manage big projects intended to benefit society as a whole, and in the process also fully engage the academic community and the private sector.
Apollo was sold to the world as a demonstration of the power of an open democratic society in opposition to the closed and secretive Soviet system. Perhaps in our all too cynical age, it is time to also remember it as a lesson of what a proactive American government can do to solve the big challenges of the future, when inspired by people of vision, and carefully managed by an agile and creative team of administrators, and when both are also accountable to the people.
Robert Stone and Alan Andres are the authors of “Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics and the Promise That Launched America into the Space Age” (Ballantine Books, out now).
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